In a little under seven months, Norihiro Nakamura has gone from the scrap heap to the top of the heap--or close to it, at least.
Over the weekend, the veteran infielder helped put Chunichi into the second stage of the Central League's Climax Series playoffs, going a team-best 5-for-8 (.625) in the Dragons' two-game sweep of the Hanshin Tigers at Nagoya Dome.
"At the beginning of the season, I never thought I'd be in this position now," Nakamura said during his "hero" interview after Sunday's 5-3 victory. "But it's not over--we still have to go up to Tokyo and play the Giants."
The Dragons finished second in the Central loop this season, three games ahead of the third-place Tigers. On Saturday, Chunichi ace Kenshin Kawakami shut down the Tigers and Masahiko Morino and Tyrone Woods went yard in a 7-0 win in the opener of the best-of-three first stage.
Next up for the Dragons are CL pennant winners the Yomiuri Giants, who host Chunichi in a best-of-five series beginning Thursday at Tokyo Dome. The winner of the second stage meets either Nippon-Ham or Chiba Lotte in the Japan Series, which gets under way Oct. 27.
Sunday's win wasn't all about Nori, of course--Lee Byung Kyu hit a three-run homer and Kenichi Nakata tossed five innings of one-run ball--but Nakamura's two-run single in a five-run first inning got the ball rolling for the Nagoya Nine.
Not bad for a guy whose career looked like it might be over after some lean years. A former Pacific League home-run and RBI champion with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Nakamura signed a minor-league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005.
It wouldn't be long, however, before Nakamura was a bigger bust in L.A. than some of the silicone-enhanced starlets trying to make it in Hollywood.
After hitting just .128 with no HRs and three ribbies in 17 games with the Dodgers, Nakamura was shipped to Triple-A Las Vegas, where he would languish for the rest of the season.
In 2006, he joined the Orix Buffaloes as a DH, posting a .232 average with 12 homers and 45 RBIs and this season he inked a one-year deal for 4 million yen as a minor-league player with the Dragons. When he made the big club a month later, he got a pay raise to 6 million yen, still a fraction of the 588 million yen a year deal he walked away from to sign with the Dodgers a couple of years back.
This year, the resurgent Nakamura put up some good numbers for Hiromitsu Ochiai's club, often playing third base and hitting in the heart of the order with slugger Tyrone Woods. His .293 average, 20 home runs and 79 RBIs over 130 games this season have helped fill the huge shoes of perennial All-Star Kosuke Fukudome, who was limited to 81 games due to injury.
Nakamura, now 34, said the playoff buzz is making him feel like a raw rookie again.
"I was very nervous in my first at-bat (Sunday) because I came up in a key situation with runners in scoring position," the five-time All-Star said. "But the support of the fans really helped me get through it. I want to beat the Giants and get to the Japan Series, and then come back here and celebrate with all the fans. After all, the beer and champagne always tastes much better after victory."
(IHT/Asahi: October 16, 2007)